Friday 6 December 2019

Obsession with the instant photograph is the mark of a creeping dehumanisation

US President Barak Obama couldn’t resist a ‘selfie’ after he was charmed by Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt, while British PM David Cameron, inset, couldn’t help getting in on the snap. AP Photo
US President Barak Obama couldn’t resist a ‘selfie’ after he was charmed by Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt, while British PM David Cameron, inset, couldn’t help getting in on the snap. AP Photo
President Barack Obama jokes with Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt,

John Waters

The song 'Human' by The Killers, created mass puzzlement on its release in 2009 because of its hook line, which many listeners insisted on hearing as: "Are we human, or are we dancers?"

Actually, the word is "dancer", the lyric having been prompted by an observation of the great method rock 'n' roll writer Hunter S Thompson - that America was raising "a generation of dancers", i.e. people who allow their thoughts to be fashioned by the dominant cultural choreography, rather than thinking for themselves.

The song came into my head when I heard of the response of the chairman of the Irish Fire and Emergency Services Association, John Kidd, to the revelation that people had been stopping with their mobile phones to capture the scene of the road accident in which two-year-old Daenerys Crosbie died on her way to Montessori school in Waterford last week.

"I ask people: be human, be common and decent," he said.

Be human. In one sense an unexpected and startling choice of injunctions, it settled into one of the most penetrating and perceptive observations I've heard in a while. For the phrase identifies precisely the nature of the problem: not just people being thoughtless, boorish, callous, voyeuristic or even ghoulish, but something worse - a loss of some intrinsically vital part of being human.

We used to laugh at the idea that American Indians believed that when someone took your photograph, they stole a part of your soul. But our modern obsession with camera phones puts a new spin on this understanding: our need to take pictures of everything betrays a deep spiritual lack in ourselves.

Think yourself, if you can, into the head of someone who, as their first response to the catastrophe of a road accident, seeks to photograph an injured child. Why?

As an act of "citizen journalism"? As a conversation piece to be stored for later? To "share" with "friends"?

Whichever it is, ask yourself: would you like to spend even a minute in the company of such an individual?

In Florence, a while ago, outside the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, I noticed a group of Japanese tourists taking photographs of themselves. Each one would take turns to photograph the others grouped in front of the cathedral. But, posing for each photograph, every one held his or her camera up towards the lens, as though it were a piece of moon rock.

Something, no doubt, is happening to the human race as a result of the ubiquity of easy-to-use cameras. No longer are we content with simply looking at something - we must have ourselves photographed standing in front of it, or holding it, or holding the camera we're about to use to photograph it.

I often wonder: when do people look at all these photographs? And, if they do, does it strike them that here they are looking at an image of something which, some time ago, they missed the opportunity to actually look at for real? Or do people store these images up to look at on their deathbeds, as a record of the life they never had because they were too busy taking photographs?

There is an argument that these new technologies are value-neutral - that, rather than provoking the excesses they're blamed for, they simply magnify and render more visible human weaknesses that lay there festering before they arrived.

I think this misses the point, which is that innovative popular technologies arrive into a human family that is ethically and otherwise unprepared for them.

Their arrival presents a new challenge to the moral resources of mankind, but this is rarely taken up. New technologies tend to be suffused in a protective armour of ideology, which asserts that the very existence of the technology represents a morality of itself.

You get this with knobs on in anything to do with the Internet, which is held up as the veritable apotheosis of human-driven creationism, a whole parallel world that mankind made all by itself.

No matter, it seems, that the Web has already desensitised whole swathes of humanity, through pornography, violent executions and a general atmosphere of ugliness. To say that this would have happened anyway is to offer an evasive non sequitur.

New technologies attract in part by convincing us that we are part of some progress project that excludes people who, by virtue of their "backwardness" or detachment, are less clever than we are.

But, really, the craze to possess and operate machines created by others is the mark of one of Hunter S Thompson's "dancers" rather than of a fully functioning human being. Technophiles think they're so-so-modern, but really they're part of an obedient chorus line governed by Apple, Microsoft and Google.

Most of us nowadays go around with cameras in our pockets or purses, lacking the faintest idea what use they might be. Their presence against out thighs or under our oxters prods us to use them, but we cannot for the life of ourselves think of anything remotely useful to do with them.

The "citizen journalism" craze is a symptom of this confusion. (Citizen dentistry, anyone?) Because the means exists to do something, it becomes imperative that we do it, and to behave as though simply using the device in question, in whatever way, amounts to a dramatisation of progress.

The invention of a new technology on its own, however, does not provoke a revolution. True innovation requires also a cultural transformation, which may take decades or even centuries to arrive.

The printing press had been invented in Japan 100 years before Gutenberg, but had made no impact.

Only when moveable type was applied to mass-producing the Bible did the revolution begin.

Popular technology offers this paradox: produced by a tiny elite of boffins, it enables a majority to become convinced that simply possessing an item of up-to-the-minute technology ipso facto announces you as part of the "revolution".

The technology of an iPhone appears to belong to everyone who owns one, even though most users couldn't locate the battery without a manual.

Our culture indoctrinates us with the notion of the "progress factor" signified by the gadget, and yet we feel inadequate because most of the instrument's functions are irrelevant to our lives.

So, we go around looking for things to do with our camera phones, rendering it inevitable that some fatally injured child will become the target of this fatuous future fetish.

Irish Independent

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